Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Exploring the Civil Rights Movement in the South - 2015

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma Alabama


This is the third of a three part series on a road trip through the South where we explored the three Cs – Civil War, Civil Rights, and Southern Charm.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s gave meaning to rights won 100 years before in the Civil War.  Despite passage of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the 1860’s to abolish slavery and to prohibit state laws limiting the rights of citizens, Southern states managed to bring back white privileges to the detriment of black citizens.  Until the civil rights movement gained momentum, African Americans in Paris were segregated in schools, restrooms, water fountains, and couldn’t even eat in the restaurant inside the Kress department store downtown.  The energy and grit behind the movement ignited in the heart of Dixie and no tour of the South is complete without visiting some of the pivotal sites where individuals bravely resisted inequality under the law.

Thanks to the movie, “Selma”, the effort to walk from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965 to protest voting rights limitations on blacks has been documented.  The 50th commemoration of this event had just been celebrated this spring and memorabilia was still available for purchase.  Together with a small group of school children and an African American couple, we walked slowly over the Alabama river on the Edmund Pettus bridge, ironically named after a Confederate officer who fought at Vicksburg .  It was only made a National Historic Landmark in 2013 and seemed to best illustrate the road to equal rights is won one step at a time. 

Montgomery, Alabama surprised us.  Despite having only one commemorative sign as recently as 2000, the city has now embraced both its civil war and civil rights past.  Standing placards document events such as the telegram that started the War Between the States and another where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to boarding whites in 1955.  At the Rosa Parks Museum, an imaginary ride in a life size bus gives minute to minute details of Ms. Parks’ confrontation with state laws.  Bus drivers at the time were quite powerful and could wear guns.  A black often had to pay his fare, walk outside the bus to the back door, and pray the driver didn’t depart and leave him stranded.  Parks’ arrest led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inside Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama
Dr. King’s involvement in the Boycott was fortuitous.  At age 26, he was pastor of the prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist church, where many of Montgomery’s black lawyers, physicians and teachers attended.  Thanks to the presence of Union soldiers after the Civil War, the church was able to get title to this prime land just three blocks down Dexter Avenue from the state capitol.  Previous pastor, Vernon Johns, had been a fierce opponent of segregation, meaning the congregation was prepped for action. Dr. King held tight to his pacifist views but was also determined to see the boycott through. 


At the Dexter Church, our tour guide, Reba, brought back the spirit of the times.  We began the tour singing “This Little Light of Mine” and ended it encircled, holding hands with “We Shall Overcome”.  In between, Reba helped us understand how young Dr. King was when he arrived (25), how cars were purchased and used by churches to transport black employees to their work, and even the appearance at the church of former Governor George Wallace in 1979 who apologized for the pain he caused during his tenure.  Truthfully, it was thrilling to stand at the pulpit and imagine a full house awaiting inspiration from Dr. King.  The church still is active but worried about the aging of its congregation.  

Civil Rights Memorial by Maya Lin
An institution I have long admired is also headquartered here.  The Southern Poverty Law Center directed much of the litigation needed to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and still pursues cases when needed.  Across the street, the Center commissioned a Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The fountain, shaped as an inverted cone, provides a poignant timeline of events from the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to MLK’s assassination. 

The greatest testament to the Civil Rights Movement on our trip was the numbers of African Americans in all strata of Southern life - businessmen in Atlanta, hotel receptionists in Kennesaw, Georgia, bus drivers in Montgomery, TV cameramen at CNN’s headquarters, teachers leading classes of school children on field trips, diners in upscale restaurants and tourists themselves.   We stopped for dinner in Meridian, Mississippi where three northern civil rights volunteers were killed by Klansman in 1964.  What we found in 2015 was a Thai restaurant filled with whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. 

The Civil Rights struggle will  never be finished.  Moslems, gays, and immigrants face some of the same hatred and fears suffered by African Americans.  But a trip through the South gives perspective as well as hope and encouragement.  

Visiting Civil War sites is Essential to Understanding the War

Civil War Canon On Top of Kennesaw Mountain

I am conflicted visiting Civil War sites.  Had I lived then, I hope I would not have owned slaves and would have voted against secession.  Yet, part of my heritage is with the Confederacy.  My grandmother spoke with venom about the deadly prison where her Confederate soldier father endured the war.  Until her death, she still used the word Yankees for Northerners as her eyes hardened.   But a trip through the South requires at least some stops at battlegrounds to give perspective on the terrain, battle tactics and suffering of the soldiers.  We started with the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Vicksburg lies on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, immediately giving the Confederates a ten-fold advantage to control the nation’s biggest river.  The major east-west railroad passed through town bringing to the South badly needed Arkansas hogs, Texas horses, and Mexican and European imports.  Northern General Ulysses Grant had won 10 of his last 12 battles and knew he could cut off the legs of Dixieland by winning Vicksburg.  General John Pemberton realized a loss at Vicksburg would be the beginning of the end for the insurrection.  The battle began on May 18, 1863 and ended July 2nd with a complete surrender by the Confederate Army.

At the large Vicksburg National Military Park, roads wander through hill and dale with markers indicating shifting battle lines.  In 1863, trees would have been leveled to provide open views for snipers.  Today, only part is cleared.  We used Michael Logue, a local guide who provided local commentary as he drove our car through the grounds.  Distances between lines were surprisingly small, indicative of the distance a rifle could shoot successfully.  We learned the difference in a redoubt (square fort) and a redam (triangle fort), both French words from the language used in army manuals.  Local quartz dust soil provided perfect dry conditions for digging trenches, a tactic to be used soon in World War I. When the battle stalled outside Vicksburg’s fort, Pemberton moved his men inside the city walls to weather the coming 47 day disastrous siege.  Some experts (including our guide) consider this battle more important than Gettysburg because of its commercial significance.

Vicksburg’s Park is unique in two other ways.  On the grounds is the remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, one of seven ironclad gunboats built in 30 days by the Union to carry thirteen canons along the Mississippi.  Inside, the boat was so hot only immigrants could be talked into working there.  It had a short life, sinking in 1862 but was resurrected in 1965 and displayed at the park in 1972.  Also scattered throughout the park are 140 artistic monuments honoring every state that fought in the battle as well as individual officers or groups who served.    For years, a reunion of veterans from both sides was held here.

View of Atlanta from top of Kennesaw Mountain
We probably would never have visited the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park if our son were not attending school in Georgia.  It is one of the many “lesser” battles and yet was a part of General Sherman’s famous march to Atlanta in June, 1864.  Kennesaw Mountain was a large, natural barrier protecting the approach to railroads in Atlanta.  The Northern army used maneuvering tactics to minimize an attack uphill and eventually reached the other side.  It is hard today to visualize the battle since nature has filled in cleared spaces but a drive takes you to the top of the mountain to see Atlanta in the distance. 
Locomotive inside Southern Museum of Civil War
and Locomotive History

The biggest surprise of the trip was the discovery in Kennesaw of the excellent Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a member of the Smithsonian Affiliations Program.  That’s a big name for a small museum but this one details the importance of railroads and manufacturing in the outcome of the Civil War. 
After seeing the displayed statistics, I realized the South had little chance to win.  The North had 21,000 miles of railroad – the South 1,000.  The North produced 234,000 tons of rails – the South  26,000.  The North manufactured 2.5 million guns – the South only 250,000.  Food was brought in regularly by rail to Union soldiers.  Southern boys had to forage for nourishment.  And, most crucially, an entire construction corps of eventually 10,000 men under Herman Haupt developed construction techniques to more quickly rebuild Union railroads destroyed by the South and to prevent reconstruction by the Confederacy of their own railroads. 


Judging by exit signs on the Interstate Highways, many Civil War sites have been preserved.  The American Battlefield Protection Program was established to classify the preservation status of battlegrounds.  They had to choose which sites among 8,000 battles deserved protection and rate them according to importance.  Add that to the 135 Civil War Museums in the country, and one could use every vacation reliving our country’s most painful time.  Yet, we should all visit a few of the sites to understand how close and personal this war was.  My conflict from 100 years later is nothing compared to those who had to fight on one side or the other – a choice we are fortunate not to have.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Linden House in Natchez, Mississippi - Six generations have preserved this beautiful plantation home.

Jeanette Feltus in Linden House, Natchez, Mississippi


View from Veranda of Linden House
“Howdy Do”, Jeanette Feltus called out with a bright morning lilt, taking time out from instructions to the gardener on the need for more moth balls to distract deer from the shrubs.  “How ya’ doin?”  she asked in her bright yellow pants suit, flowered jacket and large costume earrings.  She hadn’t slowed since we met the night before when she dealt out opinions on food, drink and which plantations to visit in Natchez, Mississippi on a limited schedule. Jeannette represents the sixth generation of the O’Connor family living in Linden House and has been instrumental in its survival. 


Grounds of Linden House in Natchez, Mississippi
Natchez lies on a bluff above the Mississippi River contributing to its reputation as a healthy locale where almost all large 19th century cotton plantations owners in Mississippi built majestic homes for their families.  With the largest number of millionaires per capita in the United States at the time, Natchez was the place to be in the 1800s.   Surprisingly, it voted not to secede from the Union.  When the Blue Army arrived from New Orleans, locals chose not to resist strongly,  saving itself from the torched remains of other cities.  Today, the largest array of pre-civil war antebellum homes in the South has found new life with tours and bed and breakfast offerings, including our Linden House.   

Breakfast was served promptly at 8:30 a.m.  Around the extended dining room table were three Australian women, two Dutch men, an English couple and a sweet young couple from nearby Ferriday, probably celebrating a wedding anniversary.   I was surprised at the heavy foreign presence, especially in a small town losing population and off the beaten path.  One Australian woman confided they were fascinated by Southern traditions and BBQ and thought its people like our innkeeper were charmingly different. 

Jeanette Feltus giving tour of Linden House
After breakfast, Jeanette gave a free tour of the house built in 1790 and owned by the O’Connor family since 1829.  According to family lore, the first Mrs. O’Connor faced down Union soldiers, threatening to destroy her furniture before giving it over.  Jeanette’s husband, Rufus Feltus, was really the descendant and after buying out four other heirs, the couple restored the home and added air conditioning.    The exterior was just as one would imagine for a southern plantation.  It was the model for Percy Faith’s album cover featuring Tara’s theme song from Gone With The Wind (minus the cobwebs, Jeanette added). 





High bed in Dick's Room
Inside the house, Mrs. Feltus had a running commentary on each item.  An old coffee maker that works like a still – “I wouldn’t know”.  Painting of an ancestor – “Beautiful painting but ugly subject.”  Genealogy book that traces family back to Alfred the Great – “So they say.  I don’t know.”   There were beautiful oil portraits of her daughters as young women and of her husband but none of her.  Unhappy with the results of her own likeness, she relegated the painting to a closet.   Some rooms had special histories.  Ours was Dick’s Room, named after her father-in-law who was born in that space and stayed there always when visiting. 

Veranda at Linden House, Natchez, Mississippi
Ahead of her time, Jeanette had wanted to be a lawyer but agreed to try teaching history in Natchez first.  Her husband’s family owned successful hardware stores in several states.  Based on that introduction, Jeanette was welcomed into Natchez society.  But she was no idle Southern Belle.  Her home was the center of their children’s social life including ping pong on the veranda.  She participated in the active Garden Club that started the preservation of homes in Natchez.  And she helped organize the Annual Antique Forum now in its 38th year and was quick to point out this is not an antique fair.  Speakers from across the country lecture on sophisticated subjects.  In 2015,  participants will investigate the relationship between the American South and the cultural phenomenon of the European Grand Tour.


Mrs. Feltus candidly admitted concern for the future of the home.  Her daughters were on the “dark side of 50” with no descendants.  Maybe a cousin would step in.  Maybe a foundation could be formed.  This is not an isolated problem for Natchez plantation owners.  With the cost of maintenance and upkeep so high, only six bed and breakfast homes still remain in “the family”.    But I have no doubt Jeanette Feltus will find a solution.  She has the grit of Scarlett O’Hara and the humor of Dolly Parton – a charming combination that guarantees success.  Natchez’ inventory of plantations will need more people like her to survive. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Rolling Stones Concert - Fifty Three Years of Performing Hasn't Dimmed the Excitement

Official T-shirt of the 2015 Tour


After arriving at the nearest subway station, we approached the Bobby Dodd Stadium by foot.  It was early.  Very early.   Summer showers had cleared the air providing a respite from the Atlanta summer heat. A steady stream of fellow earlybirds walked quickly with us, as if the music were about to begin.  The Alabama blues band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, wouldn’t launch the show until 8 with the Rolling Stones due on sometime after 9.   It was only 6:15.
Bobby Dodd Stadium Begins to Fill

Along the way, a single fervent believer read the Bible aloud as we passed.  Another handed out flyers asking if we were saved – probably an appropriate question of this crowd of past prime time rock and rollers.  Ticket scalpers held hands high, flashing coveted tickets.  An occasional one questioned if we had tickets to sell.  Directly ahead a grandfather/granddaughter combo clearly shared knocked knee genes.  It was the first hint of the generational affect of the Rolling Stones and blend of the crowd.  Flip flops joined Birkenstocks headed to the stadium.  Occasional penny loafers walked in with spike heels alongside.  Gray hair dominated

Mick Jagger is 72 years old, Keith Richards 71, Rolling Stones Band 53 – literally a working lifetime of performing.   When they debuted on July 12, 1962, John Kennedy was president.  Eight presidents have served as they played on.   The civil rights movement was in full swing then resulting in a black President today who has sung along with Mick at the White House.  Birth control pills were about to give much needed power to women as the band’s swagger and claim of no satisfaction played to changing sexual mores.  Their unapologetic use of drugs helped launch the now rapid move to legalize marijuana.  They are a half century older but still play to the nostalgia of boomers and attract millenniums whose first memories were of their songs.
Downtown Atlanta in Distance

Inside, fans arrived from around the world.  A British woman had traveled from the Emirates to catch her 26th Stones concert, beginning in 1973.  T-shirts from earlier tours were worn proudly.  In front of us, a young man wore a shirt from the 2014 tour On Fire which included stops in Israel, Norway and Spain. My favorite shirts were those of a couple that demanded, “Keith Richards for President”.   Seated next to me were two who already had tickets to the next concert in Orlando, Florida.  They had even splurged for the second event, paying $1750 per ticket to sit on the floor level.
The talk was of this and other performances.  We were asked what other bands we had seen and had to reach far back to college days to answer.  My husband earned street cred with his Janis Joplin concert at U.T.  I got a nod of approval for the Jefferson Airplane in San Antonio.  We were with serious music lovers who traveled long ways and paid big bucks to relive earlier days.

Bobby Dodd Stadium fills
Crowds continued to flow in until the sold-out stadium filled.  I had just commented on the lack of smoking around us when the lights went out.  For one brief moment all was quiet and then Keith Richards’ lone guitar could be heard prophesying the coming of “Start Me Up”.  The audience arose with a shout, smoke of all kind went up,  three huge jumbotroms  flashed on and Mick, Keith Charlie Watts and Ron Wood roared to life.  Most fans never sat down again. 

Surprisingly,  the songs I danced to at the Plainview YMCA fifty years ago are still on the play list.  With the exception of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, members of the band have come and gone but the music remained constant.    Judging by the remarkable energy of Mick and smiles of Keith, they still love to perform.  Richards stopped dying his hair in 2008 and proudly wears his long, grey curls.  Even with his dyed hair,  I was sure Jagger’s age would show itself somehow.  But his strong voice, large strides across the stage, skips down the platform, and jumps to the beat masked his years.   Only the creviced face revealed the toll of a long life.

They played over two hours without a break.  Mick had funny local comments.  He introduced all in the band.  He remembered their previous performances in Atlanta, claiming we were the best audience on the tour.  And, he made sure the crowd sang, clapped and danced along to Gimme Shelter, Honky Tonk Women, Satisfaction and many more.  It was easy for us to join in with the strong beats, familiar lyrics and constant refrains. 


Over the last fifty three years, The Stones have played concerts in dozens of countries and sung from their fixed repertoire thousands of times.  Their lives have had a fair share of tragedy with notable public disagreements.  But they have survived.  They still project a bad boy image that’s been copied by youth 50 years their junior while delivering philosophical and driving songs.  It was simply impressive.  The best.  Contrary to the song, we got what we wanted and needed.  

McAlester, Oklahoma Deserves a Stop

Masoni Temple's large auditorium where Plays of Initiation are held





  Two highways skirt the edges of McAlester, Oklahoma, 100 miles north of Paris, and few travelers slow down except as required by stoplights.  Yet, this town of 18,000 inhabitants owns a surprising history full of railroad construction, Indian Territory rights, coal mines, Masonic presence, Italian immigrants and even the beloved Will Rogers.

Backdrops at Masonic Temple in McAlester
It’s the hills of downtown McAlester that surprises visitors first.  Atop the highest one is the tallest structure in town – the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center.   Due to Masons’ prominent past when 10% of the men in the U.S. belonged,  Masonic Lodges and Temples abound across the country and this one is impressive.  The McAlester branch has had so many members in the past, its building was enlarged more than once ending with construction of the second largest Masonic stage in the U.S. and a 3100 pipe Kimball organ.  The Temple is appropriately proud of the world’s largest scene backdrops designed by prolific artist, Thomas Gibbs Moses.  These enhance the moral lessons acted out for each of the 32 degrees. 

Props used in plays at Masonic Temple
Painting of member Will Rogers

A painting of former member Will Rogers is displayed in the palatial lobby along with a donated Frederick Remington statue.   Upstairs, the beautiful Egyptian themed auditorium is still used for the morality plays but also for local concerts and events.  Behind the scene are prop rooms filled with heavy silk and satin costumes, shelves of crowns, sandals, wigs, and swords. 

Chapel contains a Koran, Bible and Torah
The dining hall can feed 500.  In the small chapel, a Bible, Koran, and Torah are open on an altar emphasizing the Mason’s requirement of a belief in a Supreme Being but without a commitment to a certain religion.  Our guide emphasized no alcohol, political talk or religious persuasion is allowed in the center.  At one end of the building, a childhood speech disorder clinic operates as one of over 100 that have been begun by the Masons.  Its commitment to public education was also emphasized as well as transport of area children to the great Shriner and Masonic Hospitals. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the largest fraternal organization in the world, a tour of this beautiful building is a great way to get started.

Ceremonial Hall at International
Headquarters of Rainbow Girls
Down the street is the headquarters for the International Supreme Assembly of the Rainbow for Girls, a noble name for a Masonic organization started in McAlester to provide some of the benefits of their tradition for girls.  Truthfully, I was shocked to discover Rainbow Girls still existed.  Begun by the Rev. William Marks Sexon in 1922 in McAlester,  its heyday in the 40s and 50s saw chapters chartered across the country, including my hometown of Plainview, Texas.  I joined for a brief time, mainly to see what the initiation rite was all about.  Today, it still has a Supreme Worthy Advisor with about 10,000 members in the U.S. and several foreign countries.   If you’re nostalgic about the organization and its ceremonial hall or if you want to step back into the 50’s, visit this well preserved museum of a building.

Signs of McAlester’s history play out in the town beginning with its name.  J.J. McAlester used his knowledge of nearby coal reserves and his wife’s Native American heritage to purchase land.  He then convinced the railroad to build the track from Kansas to Texas through his holdings.  The town was later named for him.  In the Old Town section to the north of downtown McAlester, his original Mercantile Building still stands and houses the popular Whistle-Stop Bistro that deservedly does a booming lunch business.

Carl Albert Freeway is named for the hometown boy made U.S. Speaker of the House.   It is no surprise then that McAlester is home to an ammunition plant and center.  You probably wouldn’t want to be here during a war, though, as most of America’s bombs are made nearby.

Storefront for Lovera's Italian Grocery Store
The small town of Krebs borders McAlester’s east city limit and is well known in the state for its Italian restaurants.  Italian immigrants came in the late 1800s to work in the dangerous Indian Territory mines.  Oklahoma’s worst mining disaster occurred in Krebs in 1892 when 100 miners died.  As coal played out, some immigrants opened restaurants which still serve traditional pasta dishes and a local favorite – lamb fries or fried sheep’s testicles.    The biggest surprise is the small Lovera’s grocery store established in 1946 that is filled with Italian favorites such as dried pasta, chocolate, biscotti, homemade Italian sausage, cheeses, and, of course, lamb fries.  It was quiet the morning we visited but apparently, busloads of tourists will drop by for this authentic Italian experience.

McAlester will never be a major tourist destination but its proximity to Eufala Lake brings in enough visitors to support a nice variety of experiences.  It’s definitely worth a turn off the major highways.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Update on Area Restaurants in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma


Inside Liefie li Vine Restaurant in Winnsboro, Texas


Over the last seven years, I have written of “things to do” in Paris, Mt. Pleasant, Sulphur Springs, Greenville and other close-by communities.  A few eating suggestions were included but now I have discovered some new eateries of note – all within driving distance for lunch or dinner. 

Exterior of Thai Lanna's
Inside Thai Lanna's in Mt. Pleasant
On the exterior,  Thai Lanna’s is as indistinctive a restaurant as one would ever frequent.  Located on the access road to I-30 in Mt. Pleasant and next to a Super 8 Motel, it’s easy to miss.  But inside is a beautiful, clean space with freshly made Thai food to order.  Owner Kanyasiri  “Jeed” Castle closely supervises the kitchen and often delivers dishes directly to a customer’s table.  Her mango and sticky rice dessert charmed even my chocolate loving husband.  If you’ve never experienced Thai cuisine or if you’ve been missing it, try this nearby locale.  Just don’t expect fiery.

Downtown Sulphur Springs continues to improve with a completed square renovation and updated, landscaped side streets.  As so often happens, restaurants follow improvements.  In addition to previously recommended Lou Viney’s Restaurant and Pub and the Pioneer Café, Cajun food is now available at Bayou Jack’s Cajun Grill on the square.  Their gumbo was authentic and shrimp salad satisfying.  The lunch crowd of working men seemed to appreciate the portions.  Save dessert for the Idzi Bitsy Bakery around the corner. 

Lobby of Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx
Inside Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx.
A very recent addition to downtown Greenville is the stunning Texas Theater, a former Opera House that had been shuttered since 1975.  Native Barbara Horan took on the challenging project of renovating an old theater and the results are spectacular.  In the lobby is a sleek coffee shop where a very decent cappuccino can be had as well as breakfast and lunch offerings.  Inside, tables seating 120 face the stage and are placed on several levels.  Recent performers have included Rick Springfield, Jimmie Vaughan, David Alan Coe, The Mills Brothers and Jeremiah Johnson.  Prices for tickets are high but include a four course meal, all drinks, tax, tip and the show.  It’s amazing to have this offering within driving distance.

Dipping south a bit to Winnsboro is Liefie li Vine, a South African themed restaurant owned by the Styrdom family.  Few know what to expect on first visit but waiters and owners are ready with explanations of anything on the menu.  Many American favorites such as prime rib are offered but it’s the ethnic offerings that are most intriguing.  Flat iron steak comes with a splash of traditional  monkey sauce .  I leave that to you to get an explanation.  A covered patio in the back makes for a relaxed evening.  My favorite part was the opportunity to sign up for a safari as you entered as well as the African gift shop.  This place is very popular.  Try going early and visiting downtown Winnsboro before dinner.

Shannon Mitchell's Grateful Head T-Shirt
Back north of the Red River are some relatively new restaurants in Broken Bow.  One stands out – Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Taproom - named after the owners’ favorite band.  This popular pizza place has had to expand 5 times and now includes its own gift shop.  I realized it had been discovered locally when I saw a Grateful Head t-shirt on a Lamar County Clerk’s employee.  Shannon Mitchell declared the restaurant her family’s favorite and we compared pizza choices.   By internet standards, the Funky Chicken pizza appears to be most popular but Shannon and I preferred the Tree Hugger.   Best time to go is in the evening when live music is available.  You may even catch Lamar County Deputy Reggie Daus playing in the Krissy Green Band.

I don’t want to forget recent additions to the Paris scene, especially downtown.  Perry’s Off the Square describes its offerings as “elevated comfort food”  - translated as favorites with a twist.   The decor is lovely and hopefully, we can dine outside soon if the weather would stay cleared.  107 wishes the same thing.  On nice evenings, this open air bar is wonderful for a cold beer and light dinner.  According to friends, nearby Phat Phil’s serves up good BBQ, coleslaw and potato salad from a trailer near Market Square.  And, Paris finally has its own Louisiana fare with Cajun Moon Grill and Bar on the west side of town – a welcome addition to an area with few food offerings.  Families, couples, and singles like this lively restaurant.  It works for lunch or a Friday night celebration.

The good news is the independent restaurant explosion in the U.S. has moved into our territory.  Chains are no longer our only option.  We just have to drive a bit to sample them all and this summer would be a good time to start. Bon appétit.






Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Peace Corps Family

In front of church in Antigua, ,Guatemala


School event in Chimazat, Guatemala

 I’ve never been in the Peace Corps.  It was tempting but my oldest brother beat me to it, getting posted to Ecuador in 1973.   A niece joined in 2004, our son in 2006, another niece in 2008, and the first niece again in 2015.   It became almost a rite of passage for our family and provided interesting places to visit.

The program has beckoned to altruistically inclined college graduates since its beginning in 1961.  At the time, a commitment of two years to a distant country guaranteed a degree of hardship.  When my brother left for Ecuador, we hoped to see him once in the next 27 months.  He trained for three months in Puerto Rico, theoretically learning the language, and was dispatched to Agato, Ecuador, an indigenous village outside of Otavalo, a town two hours north of Quito, the capital. 
We had only the Peace Corps post office address for him and he had no phone.  As the town’s first volunteer, Mack had to find accommodations.  A second story floor was put in a barn which kept him dry but all had to duck under the large wooden beams to move about.  No electricity or running water was available.  He  built his own outhouse.  Fortunately, the community well was close and water could be hauled in large buckets.  Propane fueled his lanterns and stove.  Evenings ended and mornings began early.

My family visited Mack in 1974.  We stayed “in town” in Otavalo and quickly came down with amoebic dysentery.  Yet, I fell in love with the country and when a teaching job in Quito became available, I stayed for 15 months.  With the Peace Corps office near my home, I often stopped by as a kind of volunteer wannabe.   The volunteers were an independent lot, seemingly capable of putting up with anything.  Those posted to Quito had an easier time of it but the ones in the countryside had better stories. Mack liked it so much, he stayed an extra year.

At Lindsay Clark's home in Honduras
Lindsay's kitchen in Honduras
Fast forward 30 years to Honduras where our niece, Lindsay, was sent.  After she picked us up at the Tegucigalpa airport, we stopped by the Peace Corps office.  Times had changed but the laid back, open door, notices on the bulletin board environment had not.  As we drove to her small town, Lindsay calmly recounted stories of persons killed by machetes in her community but then with the usual Peace Corps odd juxtaposition of experiences, we joined her friends that night for a family birthday party with music and dancing.  This trip was cut short because of my sudden appendicitis.  Fortunately, the Peace Corps emergency number guided us to an appropriate hospital for surgery.





At Walker Clark's home in Chimazat, Guatemala
Two years later, our son joined.  He could have gone to an Eastern European country a year earlier but waited to get posted to Spanish speaking Guatemala.  Walker was also sent to a small town where strawberry farmers hoped he could instruct on how to grow those big strawberries sold in the U.S.  He knew nothing about strawberries, an initial disappointment to all.  In the end, he helped organize a co-op with marketing techniques for their product.  He also stayed a third year.

One year later, a second niece joined and was sent to western Ukraine, a country already split between two cultures.  None of the clothes Elizabeth brought were warm enough for the winters and a fur coat was her first purchase.  She lived in a city and taught English while learning the very difficult Ukrainian language.  Elizabeth has been our go-to person for context in the current Ukraine/Russia face-off.

This year, niece Lindsay joined the Peace Corps a second time with her husband.  They had just been posted to Vanuatu, a tiny country of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when Cyclone Pam slammed it.  Peace Corps chartered a plane to evacuate their volunteers before the storm arrived.  Lindsay and Sean waited in Australia until word came they were returning to Vanuatu to serve as emergency care workers. 

The Peace Corps has adjusted with the times.  Countries have come and gone according to political situations.  No driving is allowed but cell phones are - a godsend for those left at home.   Rules for drinking have been tightened.  Safety is the number one concern.  And it now offers a college program for returning volunteers, a benefit all our recent family members have used. 


Town home in Xela, Guateamala
A common topic in our family is whether the Peace Corps is that helpful for the locals.   All agree the greatest benefit is to the Volunteer who returns more confident and realistic about the world.  After my brother helped build a water line into his village, he became a water expert for the state of California.  As a nurse, Lindsay has often used her Spanish proficiency.  From Elizabeth’s experiences, she recognized the need for smart fund raising and now does that for Habitat for Humanity in Chicago.  And our son continues to use his fluent Spanish with his beautiful Guatemalan wife and son – the best argument of all to continue the program. 

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